Refuge Occupiers Cast as Persecuted at Trial

     PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Ammon Bundy’s lawyer called the January occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge a principled legal protest during opening statements to the jury Tuesday, while prosecutors insisted the occupiers were being tried for their actions, not their beliefs.
     Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, Shawna Cox, Kenneth Medenbach, Jeff Banta, Neil Wampler and David Fry are facing a combination of charges over the January occupation. All seven are charged with conspiracy to use force, intimidation or threats to keep government employees from doing their jobs.
     The Bundy brothers, Cox, Fry and Banta are also charged with possession of guns in a federal facility, and Ryan Bundy and Medenbach are charged with theft of government property.
     Eleven of the 26 defendants initially charged over the occupation have pleaded guilty. Seven are set to stand trial in February, and the government dropped charges against one defendant.
     As the trial kicked off with opening arguments on Tuesday, assistant U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Barrow described how the occupation started. On Jan. 2, there was a protest in Burns, Oregon, over the jailing of local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. The father and son had been ordered to serve the balance of their mandatory minimum sentences for lighting two fires on the government land where they grazed their cattle.
     After the protest, Ammon Bundy stood atop a snowbank and encouraged the protesters to join him at the refuge, where he would make a “hard stand” against government overreach.
     One after another, each of the defendants told the jury on Tuesday that the occupation was never intended to intimidate government employees. Rather, it was the extension of a legal protest, they said.
     Marcus Mumford, attorney for Ammon Bundy said the government was prosecuting his client for “organizing his community.”
     “He said ‘hard stand,’ which makes it sound like something extreme,” Mumford told the jury. “But since when is it extreme to say that the federal government should obey the law?”
     Ryan Bundy, who is representing himself, told the jury that the purpose of the occupation was to fight government “despotism” and “promote liberty.”
     But Barrow emphasized in his statement to the jury that none of the defendants were on trial for their political beliefs.
     “We are not prosecuting the defendants because we don’t like what they think or said,” Barrow said. “We’re prosecuting them because of what they did.”
     Similarly, he said the government had no qualms with the defendants’ often proclaimed right to bear arms.
     “This is a case about what the defendants did with their firearms,” Barrow said. “They took them into a federal facility and used them to intimidate federal employees.”
     Barrow said the occupation was no spontaneous political protest. It had been planned far in advance.
     He told the jury that at the end of last year, refuge employees were preparing to launch a new initiative aimed at reducing the population of invasive carp in the Malheur Lake.
     “But what they did not know,” Barrow said, “was that they faced an invasion far more dangerous than invasive carp. Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy were preparing an occupation.”
     And when they arrived on Jan. 2, Barrow said the heavily armed militants “moved as a military force” to clear the refuge buildings, set up a perimeter and station a gunman atop the refuge’s fire lookout.
     Barrow said Ammon Bundy traveled to Burns in October to meet with Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward over his concern about the Hammond case.
     Barrow said Ward would testify on Wednesday that Ammon threatened him, saying either he do his job as sheriff to protect the Hammonds from the federal government, or Ammon would bring in “thousands” of people who would do his job for him.
     And Ammon told Ward about his primary cause: that the Constitution prohibits the federal government from owning land, whether in Harney County or elsewhere, and that government overreach was squelching rural economies all over the American West, Barrow said.
     In earlier evidentiary hearings, the defendants fought to keep the government from introducing as evidence anything that happened during the April 2014 standoff at dad Cliven Bundy’s Bunkerville, Nevada, ranch. There, self-identified “patriots” faced off with employees of the Bureau of Land Management who were trying to carry out a judge’s order to seize Cliven Bundy’s cattle because he refused to pay more than $1 million in overdue grazing fees.
     The Bundy brothers and their father are facing charges in Nevada over that incident.
     But Mumford referred to the situation obliquely on Tuesday, mentioning the “culmination” of Cliven’s decades-long battle with the government and describing how it informed Ammon’s reaction to the Hammond case.
     “Mr. Bundy grew up watching his father wrestling with the unreasonable and often inconsistent demands of the federal government,” Mumford said. “Cliven Bundy has spent a lifetime dealing with the Bureau of Land Management. When he became a more vocal critic of the BLM, the agency decided to respond in kind. The issue culminated when Bundy learned an important lesson. What was it? He enlisted the help of the local sheriff to help resolve his issues with the federal government.”
     Mumford said the jury would have to determine Bundy’s intent in spearheading the 41-day occupation.
     “Did Mr. Bundy take his actions for the reason he explained?” Mumford asked. “Or was it for the reason the government said, to somehow interfere with some kind of nature study?”
     Mumford said he blamed the government for the occupation.
     “The issues are serious,” Mumford told the jury. “One man is dead. Mr. Bundy has been in jail for seven months. All because the federal government refuses to respect the limits of its power.”
     

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